If any writer investigating the very 21st century trend for public shaming was going to become embroiled in his own public shaming, it was Jon Ronson.
Here, the probing journalist and documentary maker behind Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, talks to Nick Mitchell about his own tips for handling a Twitter shaming, and explains why he confronted the subject head-on in his latest book
The only time Jon Ronson’s publicist can fit in an interview with me is while he’s boarding a flight from his adopted New York back to London.
Maybe that’s apt.
The opening chapter of his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?, is about a woman called Justine Sacco. In December 2013 the 30 year old corporate communications director was jetting off to South Africa from New York to visit family, when she started tweeting jokes in an effort to kill the boredom, and score some social media approval.
Warming up, Sacco posted an innocuous quip about a fellow passenger:
“‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
Deciding to up the ante, Sacco, who only had 170 followers at this point, tweeted the following joke during her stopover at Heathrow:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Without wishing to spoil the ending of Ronson’s account (an excerpt of which was published in the New York Times last year), when she arrived in Cape Town and switched her phone back on, she got the buzz of messages and notifications she was initially looking for – except they weren’t congratulating her sense of humour or use of irony.
No, Justine Sacco had become the number one trending topic in the world, for all the wrong reasons. One sample response:
“We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
It’s this kind of gleeful, mass witch-hunt, in which a large group of normal, well-adjusted people target an individual online, which Ronson explores in his latest book.
So, as he’s waiting to board his flight, and struggling to make a coffee machine co-operate, I remind him that I’m doing him a good service by distracting him from Twitter.
“What I like about this book is that it really snakes its way into your paranoid brain,” he laughs. “It’s the first kind of horror story I’ve written. People have said to me that reading this book makes them feel like what it’s like to be having an anxiety attack.”
Ronson at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival in 2014 – Getty Images
Anxiety seems to have woven itself into the fabric of Twitter in recent years. The platform’s complete openness, which was originally one of its greatest strengths, now means that you need to turn those 140 characters over and over in your mind before hitting Tweet. But for Ronson, writing it was also an anxious experience.
“Yeah. It was an anxiety inducing experience writing the book. I had to go to the doctor at one point and ask for Xanax. Because I’m living in New York at the moment I didn’t even have to say Xan… before he was practically throwing the stuff at me. I think some of that anxiety has ended up on the page.”
Throughout his career, Ronson has played an active role in his work, whether he’s fleeing sinister security types working for the shadowy Bilderberg Group (Them), or befriending patients in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital (The Psychopath Test). In Shamed, he plays a more observational role (an amusing visit to a porn shoot is about as gonzo as it gets), so surely there wouldn’t be any personal fall-out for him? Well…
In the Afterword to the paperback edition Ronson describes how he found himself at the centre of a “mini-shaming” over an unpublished quote from a proof of the book that a freelance journalist tweeted. So now that he has personal experience of a public shaming, does he have any words of wisdom for others in that situation?
“One interesting thing that’s happened this year is that various shamed people have emailed me to say ‘I’m being shamed, what should I do?’. That’s happened a few times.”
If you know you’re in the right…
“What I’ve noticed, with Justine Sacco, for instance, was that even though I don’t think she felt like she’d done anything wrong, because her joke wasn’t intended to be racist, it was supposed to be a liberal joke mocking privilege, she still apologised and took responsibility. I think that if you’re being bullied, if you haven’t done anything wrong, then don’t apologise, fight back and stand up for yourself. Otherwise you’re just feeding the outrage. That’s kind of what I did, this last year, even though it was quite unpleasant. I stood up for myself, and luckily people supported me.”
If you know you’re in the wrong…
“If you’ve done something wrong, immediately admit what you did, don’t lie, be completely honest about your mistakes and personality flaws. Then it’s probably a good idea to go silent for a while, to get off social media for a year or two.”
That’s exactly what the acclaimed writer Jonah Lehrer did not do. His successful, lucrative career spun off the rails in 2012 when he was accused of making up quotes and attributing them to Bob Dylan in his latest book, which led to futher accusations of plagiarism and recycled writing.
Jonah Lehrer – Thos Robinson/Getty Images
In Shamed Ronson recounts in painful detail how, with his reputation in tatters, Lehrer made a public apology which was streamed live online – except it was only a half-apology in which he didn’t really express any true regret, and for which he was paid $20,000.
Needless to say, it wasn’t the career-saving move he’d intended. And Twitter certainly didn’t buy it.
“As I said in the book, for a smart man, everything Jonah Lehrer did was incredibly stupid,” Ronson says. “He’s like a case study in what not to do, if you’re caught transgressing. Everything he did was a mistake.”
Ronson makes clear in the book that he’s less concerned with Twitter as the delivery platform, but with the human behaviour that drives public shaming. But I ask him if he feels that Twitter, as a hotbed of overreactions, is almost beyond salvation now?
“I kind of do feel that, yeah. There are still good times, calm between the storms, when smart people are being smart. It’s great for real social justice. But these constant lurchings towards outrage, where a private individual is plucked out to become a representative of some ideology, when all they’ve done is made a joke that came out badly is ridiculous. That happens so frequently now that you do despair for it.
“You do feel like a bomb disposal unit, wondering which wire to cut every time you draft a tweet. It’s very stressful. I feel sorry for the young, because they’re creating a really stressful world for themselves. What I hope will happen is that people will be able to tell the difference between actual social justice and this kind of mutant social justice that happens so often on social media.”
At this point the phone signal momentarily cuts out, as Ronson prepares to board the plane. It’s a convenient point to change the subject, so when his voice returns I ask him about the planned film adaptation of his previous book, The Psychopath Test, which is reported to be starring Scarlett Johansson. Is it still in the works?
“Yeah, I don’t know anything about it. But yes. Two of the producers have just been nominated for an Oscar for Brooklyn, which I’m very happy about because it’s a great movie. The last I heard it was still happening. But I don’t phone up and ask, because I don’t want to be a pain in the ass.”
So he’s not involved in the adaptation process?
“No. In fact it’s being written by Kristin Gore, who worked on Foxcatcher, she’s a really good screenwriter. Nick Hornby told me once to never adapt your own work, and I think that’s really good advice. I think it’s impossible to remake this thing you’ve made so carefully. I don’t think I’m ever going to do that.”
After Ronson lands back in the UK he has numerous talks lined up. Given the divisive nature of the subject, he reveals that he has already had some interesting reactions to Shamed talks in the US.
“Once in a while, yeah, it can get a little bit tense. The thing that popped into my mind was this talk that I did in Santa Cruz in California when I told the Justine Sacco story, and at the end this guy looked really annoyed at me and said, ‘I’m very annoyed at you and I don’t know where to start’ and I said, ‘Well, what?’. And he said to me it’s great that you’ve brought up the subject of abuse on the internet but why write about somebody like Justine Sacco. Why not write about a teenager who’s committed suicide because of cyber bullying, or something like that?…”
Ronson breaks off his trail of thought for a few seconds as he has his boarding pass scanned…
“…And my answer to that was, when a teenager kills themself because of cyber bullying, you know what that story is. You know who’s good and who’s bad, whereas the Justine Sacco story is an ambiguous story, where she wasn’t struck down by trolls, she was struck down by us, and yet she was still wronged. A wronged person is still a wronged person even if they’re an unfashionable wronged person. It’s a much richer story to tell.”
The conclusion to the Afterword to Shamed is that, if we do see someone being wrongfully shamed online, it’s up to us to speak up on their behalf. That’s a noble ideal, but does Ronson realistically think it can happen?
“Yeah, and I think it has to happen, because otherwise it’s undemocratic. It’s hard because when someone’s being screamed at, if you stand up for them you’re just going to get a huge amount of abuse. That’s happened to me on the odd occasion last year, when I stood up for people who I thought were being wrongly shamed, and I just got massively abused. But I think you have to, or else there’s 100,000 people screaming at one person, and that’s brutal and undemocratic.”
“It’s a weirdly unfashionable argument to make at the moment. Every good person is pro social justice, and pro levelling of the playing field. That’s obvious. Social justice is a good thing. But what’s happening is this collateral damage, where people who don’t deserve it are brutalised. The reason I think it’s unfashionable is that a lot of people, while they think it’s important, are subconsciously thinking to themselves, ‘well if there’s the odd person, like Justine Sacco, who’s destroyed for this greater good, then fine, that’s life’. But it’s not life. And saying that doesn’t make you an opponent of social justice. If this collateral damage keeps happening and everyone’s too afraid to say anything, then it’s going to do damage to social justice.It’s going to be seen as a cold, judgemental ideology, when it should be seen as a wonderful, progressive ideology.”
Frank was a critical success for Ronson
Now that his investigation into public shaming is behind him, Ronson, who co-wrote the 2014 film Frank (inspired by his own stint as keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s band in the 1980s), is turning back to screenwriting.
“I’ve just finished co-writing a film called Okja, which is written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, who made Snowpiercer. I’ve just written the second draft of his next film, and it’s about to start filming with Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kelly Macdonald, Paul Dano, and Bill Nighy. That was brilliant, and it’s going to start filming in a couple of months. And I loved that – working with Bong was brilliant, and having Skypes with Tilda Swinton was brilliant as well.
“I’m working on a new screenplay, and I’m trying to do a new podcast series as well, so that’s my plan for the next few months.”
Ronson’s flight is about to start taxiing to the runway any second, and while he hasn’t posted any potentially offensive jokes on Twitter, the anxiety is never far away, even when I remind him of this fact.
“Yes, but now I’ve said stuff to you I’m still going to get shamed,” he laughs. “But it’ll be delayed until the piece comes out.”
See Jon Ronson at the following events:
26 – 30 Jan: Leicester Square Theatre, London
31 Jan: The Oxford Union, Oxford
4 Feb: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
5 Feb: Chapter Arts Center, Cardiff
Watch Jon Ronson’s TED Talk about online shaming: